ART/4/Life: #4 – Seven Swans

Sufjan Stevens mixes autobiography, religious fantasy, and regional history to create folk songs of grand proportions.

I must have been sixteen that day in Cheapo Records in Minneapolis. I spotted the goofy album art in an ancient listening station: a man standing with a cigar, the Chicago skyline, Superman. The man invited me to “feel the Illinoise.” I put it on and I was done. I suppose many people have a similar moment of conversion. Sufjan Stevens was mine.

Later I waded through his encyclopedic catalog and saw him on tour for The Age of Adz, an album inspired by the outsider artist Royal Robertson. I love it all but the sparse, folk-inflected Sevens Swans from 2004, a Christian album disguised as a love record, never lets go. It offers a spiritually nuanced perspective missing from popular music.

“Abraham,” “Seven Swans,” and “The Transfiguration” confront this notion most directly. However, the object of affection in “To Be Along with You” is wonderfully ambiguous, and “A Good Man Is Hard To Find,” based on the Flannery O’Connor story, considers conformity and forgiveness. It’s a numinous listen regardless of your beliefs. In a medium where the vogue is paramount, Sufjan continues to scoop up passé topics–like Christianity, state history, the Zodiac–and make us listen.

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